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Illinois Supreme Court rules former Democratic lawmakers can’t collect raises they voted to reject while in office

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that two former Democratic state senators are not entitled to receive back pay for raises they voted to reject while in office.

The 6-0 ruling came in a case brought by Michael Noland of Elgin and James Clayborne of Belleville against Democratic state Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s office. The former senators argued that laws freezing legislative salaries from 2009 to 2016 violated the Illinois Constitution, which prohibits lawmakers from changing their pay during their current term.

A Cook County judge last year ruled in favor of Noland, now a Kane County judge, and Clayborne, an attorney in private practice, saying the state had to pay up.

But the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice P. Scott Neville, found that Noland and Clayborne waited too long to bring their claim and “cannot now be allowed to challenge the reductions in their salaries during their previous terms in office” because they “agreed to, acquiesced in, and voted for” the reductions.

Noland and Clayborne, as lawmakers “with the power to set their own salaries, introduced, sponsored‚ endorsed, voted for, publicly touted their sponsorship of, and acquiesced to the reduction in their statutory salaries,” Neville wrote.

“Indeed, they may have benefitted in their reelection endeavors in part, based on their championing of this position of a decrease in salary for the benefit of the public good of the State of Illinois in a time of monetary need. The public was misled by these plaintiffs.”

The court did not rule, however, on the ultimate question of whether the salary freezes were constitutional.

Illinois Supreme Court rules former Democratic lawmakers can’t collect raises they voted to reject while in office

Mendoza, who’s running for reelection in November against Republican McHenry County Auditor Shannon Teresi, praised the court’s decision in a statement Thursday.

“I’m so grateful the Supreme Court said ‘no’ to these two former legislators who voted to forego their raises, then issued news releases praising their self-sacrifice in declining those raises as they asked their constituents to reelect them,” Mendoza said. “Years after they left the legislature they shamelessly sued me — and by extension, you, the taxpayers — saying they had no constitutional right to decline those raises and wanted them back.”

An attorney for Noland and Clayborne did not respond immediately Thursday to a request for comment.

In the wake of the Great Recession, which wreaked havoc on the state’s finances, Clayborne voted in favor of the salary-freeze measures every time they came up. From 2009 to 2016, Noland only once voted against such legislation, which canceled cost-of-living raises and approved unpaid furlough days. In 2012, he was quoted in a statement put out by Senate Democrats praising the move to forgo salary increases.

“We need structural tax reform to properly fund our most important priorities — like education, health care and the ongoing need for infrastructure,” Noland said. “Until we do this, the least we can do is cut our own pay again. I know most working families in Illinois are not seeing raises this year, so we shouldn’t either.”

Noland sued after leaving office in 2017, seeking back pay for himself and “all others impacted” by the eight bills lawmakers passed to give up the annual cost-of-living raises they are automatically granted under state law.

The lawsuit, which Clayborne joined as a plaintiff in 2018, also took issue with unpaid furlough days lawmakers approved for themselves each year from 2009 through 2013.

Then-Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled in July 2019 that the state constitution is “unambiguous” in prohibiting such action. Last year, Judge Allen Price Walker, who took over the case when Valderrama was appointed to the federal bench, rejected Mendoza’s arguments that Noland and Clayborne waited too long to sue. Walker ruled the state should pay nearly $72,000 to Noland and more than $104,000 to Clayborne.

But in a partial victory for Mendoza, Walker said the ruling only applied to Noland and Clayborne, not other lawmakers who were in the legislature at the time, because the pair filed their lawsuit as individuals, not as public officials.

Had the ruling been applied to all legislators serving in the General Assembly during that period, Mendoza’s office estimated it could have cost taxpayers $10 million or more.

The Supreme Court’s newest member, Justice Lisa Holder White, took the bench after arguments were heard in the case and didn’t take part in the decision.

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